Rachel Calof's Story
Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains
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Rachel Calof's Story by Rachel Calof
Book Description"Calof's [story] has the 'electricity' one occasionally finds in primary sources. It is powerful, shocking, and primitive, with the kind of appeal primary sources often attain without effort...it is a strong addition to the literature of women's experience on the frontier." -Lillian Schlissel In 1894, eighteen-year-old Rachel Bella Kahn travelled from Russia to the United States for an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof, an immigrant homesteader in North Dakota. Rachel Calof's Story combines her memoir of a hard pioneering life on the prairie with scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background and show her narrative to be both unique and a representative western tale. Her narrative is riveting and candid, laced with humor and irony. The memoir, written by Rachel Bella Calof in 1936, recounts aspects of her childhood and teenage years in a Jewish community, (shtetl) in Russia, but focuses largely on her life between 1894 and 1904, when she and her husband carved out a life as homesteaders. She recalls her horror at the hardships of pioneer life-especially the crowding of many family members into the 12 x 14' dirt-floored shanties that were their first dwellings. "Of all the privations I knew as a homesteader," says Calof, "the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear." Money, food, and fuel were scarce, and during bitter winters, three Calof households-Abraham and Rachel with their growing children, along with his parents and a brother's family-would pool resources and live together (with livestock) in one shanty. Under harsh and primitive conditions, Rachel Bella Calof bore and raised nine children. The family withstood many dangers, including hailstorms that hammered wheat to the ground and flooded their home; droughts that reduced crops to dust; blinding snowstorms of plains winters. Through it all, however, Calof drew on a humor and resolve that is everywhere apparent in her narrative. Always striving to improve her living conditions, she made lamps from dried mud, scraps of rag, and butter; plastered the cracked wood walls of her home with clay; supplemented meagre supplies with prairie forage-wild mushrooms and garlic for a special supper, dry grass for a hot fire to bake bread. Never sentimental, Caolf's memoir is a vital historical and personal record. J. Sanford Rikoon elaborates on the history of Jewish settlement in the rural heartland and the great tide of immigration from the Russian Pale of Settlement and Eastern Europe from 1880-1910. Elizabeth Jameson examines how Calof "writes from the interior spaces of private life, and from that vantage point, reconfigures more familiar versions of the American West." Jameson also discusses how the Calofs adapted Jewish practices to the new contingencies of North Dakota, maintaining customs that represented the core of their Jewish identity, reconstructing their "Jewishness" in new circumstances.
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Book DetailsISBN: 9780253209863
(229mm x 150mm x 10mm)
Imprint: Indiana University Press
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publish Date: 1-Jun-1995
Country of Publication: United States
US Kirkus Review » A moving memoir of an unusual Jewish immigrant experience: homesteading in North Dakota around the turn of the century. In simple but vigorous prose, Calof tells a story that unites what are generally two separate tales of the quest for a better life: the immigrant who, fleeing oppression or poverty, comes to the "golden land" of America, and the pioneer seeking self-sufficiency and prosperity in the American West. Calof's journey took her from the Ukraine to North Dakota in 1894, but the hopeful 18-year-old "picture bride" learned quickly that she had left one hostile territory for another. Despite the kindness of her husband, Abraham, Rachel faced a harsh and lonely life on the primitive frontier. She describes graphically, but in the unself-pitying terms of a survivor, the physical and spiritual hardships she faced, her small attempts at maintaining order and dignity, her sense of triumph in improvising candles to light for the Sabbath and finding wild mushrooms to add to a usually unvarying diet. Most moving is Calof's description of a brief period of madness after the birth of her first child when she succumbed to the Old World superstitions of her mother-in-law, who said that demons were after her baby ("How can I convince you, dear readers, that I saw the devil dancing on my dishes?" she asks). A useful but dull essay by editor Rikoon (Rural Sociology/Univ. of Missouri, Columbia) examines the history of the Jewish immigrant farming experience in America. More exasperating is feminist/new western historian Elizabeth Jameson's (Univ. of New Mexico) essay exulting in Calof's memoir as evidence of the ethnic and gender diversity of frontier experiences. Forget the historical theory: This is a profile in courage, the story of how a women with ingenuity, determination, and faith in God and herself survived - and eventually prospered. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Rachel Calof
J. SANFORD RIKOON is Research Associate Professor in the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of Threshing in the Midwest, 1820-1940. ELIZABETH JAMESON, Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, is co-editor of The Women's West.
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